Thompson's Hill

by Richard Dieterle

APRIL 9, 1968 — In the morning First and Second Platoons saddled up and began moving down the mountain (Co Nual, or 663) on which we had spent the night. We plodded westwards towards Laos, which was not too far distant. The object was to ensure that the enemy was not sending FOs to direct fire on Khê Sanh from such a vantage point, and to guard against the less likely possibility that the enemy would attempt a flanking maneuver or even put artillery pieces on the southwestern hills. The First Platoon took the lead, with the Third Squad on point. At the time the platoon was commanded by the former lieutenant of the Second Platoon, the one that had been surrounded on 25 March, 1968. The experience left him somewhat nervous, and he was by and large for the time rendered an ineffective commander. The hills that we were climbing up and down in this region were mainly covered with yellow grass about a foot high on average. It looked like a California landscape at times, but the jungle was like an ocean around us, and the grasslands were only yellow islands spotted here and there in the green expanse. This was elephant country, and I suspect the meadows were created by the penchant that elephants have for destroying trees. We stopped for lunch on a hill that was mainly grass, but its western slope was jungle. I remember that the CO seemed to be in a good mood. The area appeared to be deserted, and we were a good piece away from the unpleasantness at Khê Sanh, though the camp there could be seen plainly from the hills. In the afternoon, First Platoon again started out. We headed down through the jungle, which was not thick, towards the hill to the west. It was a small grassy knoll. As we arrived at the foot of the hill we were descending, the jungle came to an abrupt end, as if it had been trimmed for a power line corridor. The lead element formed of the Third Squad began to ascend the hill. The point man was instructed to take a break, as we were trying to close up. So Third Squad sat down on line about half way up the slope and took a break. Most of the men were sitting in the grass. Kenneth Thompson was standing with his back to the hill talking when a single shot rang out. This had its usual effect on the rest of us, was we dropped swiftly off our self-made trail and into the foliage.

Thompson simply collapsed forward, killed instantly by the AK-47 round. We picked up over the radio from the "instant sergeant" in charge of Third Squad that they had taken a KIA. Our lieutenant looked discomfited, as his experience with the enemy had not been wholly satisfactory. I ordered one of my guns out on flank near the edge of the tree line — I wanted to make sure that no one came up on us from the right, and that if the enemy moved off the hill, we would have flanking fire on them. The lieutenant followed my suggestion that flank be set out on the left, but we agreed that it should be riflemen, since we needed our remaining gun to cover the guys on the knoll in front of us. By now we had formed a small circle of about a half dozen men with the lieutenant on the right of the trail, myself a bit up it, and Nunn, who was now acting platoon sergeant, at the front. It was decided that they needed someone up front to take charge. I cursed my luck, and loudly pronounced myself "too short for this shit." A large black ammo bearer volunteered to go, and Nunn was pretty much stuck with it, even though he was shorter than I was. They took off running, with a respectable interval between each. It was a short distance, maybe 15 meters. They did not come under any fire. Up to this point only one shot had been fired. Two bubble domed choppers arrived and scouted the area. There were bunkers only 5 to 10 meters up the hill, and they had interlocking fields of fire, which meant that it would be difficult to take them. The CO decided on an air strike: by using napalm some of the grass might burn (though it almost never did), and the napalm might sink into the bunkers. A barbecue sounded fine to us, so we scooped up Thompson and scurried off the knoll.

Once back to the tree line, it was agreed that the gun would bring up the rear, as we did not want anyone trailing us up without getting the maximum fire power. Gray picked up Thompson by the foot, and another three guys each took one of the remaining limbs. I was walking in front of the body. We moved slowly, as is usually the case when going up a hill. When we stopped, I looked back at Thompson. His shirt was open, exposing his chest. There was no exit wound, but instead there was a bruise roughly above his heart, and a slight swelling where the contour of the AK round could be seen. He dangled like a shot deer. His head fell to the side and his tongue fell out of his mouth. When his head turned, his eyes rolled loosely in the same direction. His lips had turned a shade of violet as had his finger nails. There was a certain fascination with seeing someone that you had talked to not long ago suddenly become transformed into a lifeless animal. It was rather like the Yorick scene from Hamlet, but the strange rolling eyes and falling tongue made it far more macabre. I'm certain that no one there thought he had an immortal soul, and that death was an illusion. His death was only too real, killed as an animal by an animal. It was no particular comfort to consider that in the next few hours a number of us would likely end up in his condition. We could only hope the bombing would have a devastating effect — but past experience indicated that it made little difference, save to create a few holes for us to jump into as we moved forward under a hail of lead. We finally arrived back at the top of the hill from which we started. Thompson's body was wrapped in a poncho and medevaced out. The jets came in and clobbered the hill, but we could not see anything, as the trees obscured our view. Michelson, who was now the second gunner, asked me if we were going to take the lead again. I confidently proclaimed that we would not, since we were the ones who took the loss. I said this more than once, and the CO, I think, overheard me. His view, no doubt, was that if you had failed to take the hill, then you had better try again and again until you did. So we were given the "honor" of being the point element. Michelson's gun, and me along with it, were about in the middle of this element. We went back down the hill thinking that we might have a real firefight on our hands. I had planned to locate the first bunker and knock it out with a LAW anti-tank rocket, my usual technique in a pinch. Then we could proceed by circling the flank (if there was one), knocking out a new bunker each time until we destroyed the interlocking fields of fire and could move between bunkers to the top of the hill. However, we got news over the radio that the point man saw the enemy running down the hill towards the north. With typical marksmanship, we fired several hundred shots but none so much as grazed the enemy. Nevertheless, we took some satisfaction from the fact that for once the enemy had simply fled the field. We trudged up to the top of the hill, where not long afterwards Charlie-Charlie had landed. He seemed to be in a good mood, and satisfied with the results.

As to Thompson, quite some time later we were informed that his body had been lost somewhere in Đà Nẵng. I was asked to write up a citation for him so that his family would receive a Medal of Honor for him as compensation for the mysterious disappearance of his body. I refused this request, but was rewarded just the same with the mission of trying to find his body in Đà Nẵng.

APRIL 10, 1968 — The next night we were sitting comfortably atop a hill with little forest on its slopes. We had an excellent view to the south, although it was a particularly dark night, even though it was clear. While we were sitting there talking with the FO, we suddenly became aware of lights some distance below us in the valley. It soon became evident that these were headlight of one truck after another. In fact an entire convoy was moving through a valley several miles away, but no so far distant that their lights could not be clearly seen. Our FO was quite excited about this prospect, and began to call artillery and then air strikes on the position. It turned out that the valley we had seen was none other than the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail, which at this place, far to the north as it was, should be better characterized as a highway. The effect of the artillery bombardment and the air strikes was devastating, with innumerable secondary explosions. This time we hit them really good, blowing up ammo and the trucks carrying it.


 
  Col. Dubia

After Action Report, 24 April 1968
Pegasus-LAM 207 A
by Lt. Col. Christian F. Dubia
To Headquarters, 1st Battalion 8th Cavalry

On 091015 April, A Co's 16 element received sniper fire while moving in vicinity KD22316 [actually XD822316] (Hill 663) resulting in one (1) KIA. Bde scouts were called on station and observed well fortified bunkers on top of the hill mass. ARA was called and engaged the bunker complex. At 1215H A Co's FO saturated the contact area with red leg (Artillery Fire) until the air strikes arrived. At 1253H the initial air strike was completed and the second one began at 1300H. The second air craft reported small arms fire coming from the bombed area. A Co's FO observed secondary explosions. The third air strike took place at 1327H followed by secondary explosions consisting of grenades and small arms. The 16 and 36 elements returned to the contact area and found numerous medical supplies and NVA equipment. Final assessment was 11 NVA killed — friendly casualties were one (1) killed with negative wounded.

On 100810 April A Co's 26 and 36 elements in a check of the same contact area disclosed two (2) more NVA KIA, by air strikes, and five (5) additional NVA KIA, by artillery. There were also numerous equipment including web gear and one (1) AK-50. At 2140H A Co observed three tracked vehicles in vicinity XD778315. Artillery was called in on two (2) self-propelled enemy artillery pieces and one (1) unidentified track vehicle. The results of the friendly artillery, included the visual sighting by A Co's artillery FO, of one enemy tracked-vehicle burning and assumed to be destroyed. At 2_08H A Co in vicinity of XD827321 [Hill 656] observed three sets of lights in vicinity of XD860310 believed to be an enemy convoy. Artillery was called in resulting in one secondary explosion, believed to be a fuel truck. ... On 111100 April, the 1st Battalion 8th Cavalry began their return move from LZ Snapper ... At 1700H A Co returned to LZ Stud.

Since this is largely based on the Daily Staff Journal for this date, the reader may which to consult the original at 3690204010. The part of this staff journal pertaining to "A" Company is to be found at Chronology, 9 April 1968.


Comments

Lt. Col. Christian F. Dubia (July 11, 1924 - July 1, 1990) — commander, 1/8 Cavalry.

Hill 663 — Some confusion arises from the seeming contradictory designations of the elevation of Co Nual as either "Hill 663" or "Hill 656." Its proper coördinates are XD828321 (Sheet 6342 III). As we see from the map legend, the designation "656" represents both a horizontal control point and a checked spot elevation.

The 663 figure is unchecked and denotes the summit. The 656 figure denotes an elevation just below the summit to its north. Therefore, although unchecked, the 663 figure is probably accurate. A horizontal control point is "a location where the coordinates (latitude/longitude) are certain."1 Thompson's Hill is located on the same Sheet 6342 III, coördinates XD81983154 (calculated by measuring the summit point to the nearest millimeter on the map). On a satellite map, this hill has the coördinates 16°33'27.9"N 106°42'10.0"E (16.557739, 106.702785). This is the oval shaped hill where the letter /à/ is found in the village name Làng Tram.

The village behind this hill, which was out of our view at the time, was entered on the map as Làng Tram ("Carpville"), where Làng merely means "village." It is also called Thôn Trắm, thôn being a synonym for "village."

11 NVA killed — This figure is purely made up. They all appear to have escaped into the jungle at the foot of the slopes.

return move — LZ Snapper's coördinates are XD842347 (Sheet 6342 III), LZ Stud's coördinates are YD002492 (Sheet 6342 II). See the maps immediately below.


Notes

1 Maptech MapServer, Control Data and Monuments.


Maps

Khê Sanh — a map of the Khê Sanh area: Khê Sanh Area.
Đà Nẵng — a map of the city: Đà Nẵng.
LZ Snapper — for this LZ, see the map of the Khê Sanh Area and Base Map for LZ Snapper AO in the "Odyssey" series.
LZ Stud — found on the following maps: LZ Stud and Base Map for LZ Snapper AO in the "Odyssey" series.

For the events of 9 - 10 April 1968 set out on maps, see the "Odyssey" series for 9 April 1968 and 10 April 1968.